Monday, August 21, 2017

It's Monday and life is moving right along!

Hi there, bookish ladies and gents!

I'm posting a little late because I spent Sunday night with my youngest sister and then changed my work schedule so I worked today. But I'm here now and ready to hear all about the best books you've been reading.

Warp: A Novel   Ahsoka (Star Wars)

I read Lev Grossman's Warp and Zinzi Clemmons' What We Lose this week. I'm still working through Show Them No Mercy, which features several takes on how we can reconcile the God who calls his people to war in the Old Testament and preaches love and mercy in the New Testament. I'm also reading E.K. Johnston's Ahsoka because I love Star Wars and E.K. Johnston.

What are you reading this week?

Friday, August 18, 2017

Reading and Understanding

If you have been around here for more than a hot second, you might have read that I majored in English Literature. I can talk to you about the development of the novel or Shakespeare's impact on the English language. I could point out all the different ways to look at a piece of writing (also called lenses by pretentious English major people).

But the truth is that I still occasionally read a book and find myself befuddled. The two culprits this year (so far) are One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and City of God by E.L. Doctorow. Both authors use stream of consciousness in their books. Marquez jumps all over the history of a family with some magical realism thrown in for good measure. Doctorow tells the story of a priest who is losing his faith in the midst of long passages about science, the universe, and belief.


While reading these books, I found myself stopping and re-reading to see if I really understood what was going on. Sometimes I could figure it out; in other instances, I couldn't gain any more clarity and just kept reading anyway. I finished both books feeling glad I had read them and like I had accomplished something by sticking with a challenging book. But I also felt like I had missed out by not understanding everything that was written.

So I'm wondering if it's a deal-breaker for you if you don't understand all of a book. Do you set it aside in favor of easier reads? Do you work thought it with the intention to try it again at a later point? Do you need to understand every bit of a book to enjoy it?

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: The Names They Gave Us

Lucy Hansson has it all figured out--she's a confident high school student with a handsome boyfriend, who is ready to start a new school year as the captain of the swim team. But then it all falls apart, because her mother's cancer returns. Lucy finds that she doesn't know what to believe anymore about God, or life, or herself. When her mother asks her to work at a summer camp for kids in tough situations instead of spending the summer with her, Lucy reluctantly agrees. As she cares for the kids in her cabin and gets to know her fellow counselors, everything she thought she knew begins to shift. This summer will change Lucy forever.

I confessed on Twitter that I cried my way through the last hundred pages of this book. I realize your mileage may vary, but this book resonated for me in a lot of ways. Lucy and I share being the children of ministers. In many ways, this is a blessing: you grow up secure in the knowledge that you are loved by God, your family, and a whole church full of people. But there is always a breaking point when you have to put aside everything you learned as a child and decide if faith is something you will keep for yourself. I've been through that moment and this book is the story of Lucy's moment. She finds that having faith is so much bigger than sitting in a pew every Sunday and that God can be seen in new ways through a beautifully starry night or the story of a new friend.

Emery Lord does an incredible job of writing teenagers. She captures the dichotomy of being almost but not quite grown up, where you're confident and unsure all at the same time. The Names They Gave Us is also one of the best depictions of life at camp, and it will make you remember just how quickly bonds formed and how strong they could be. I also loved the importance of family; in this book, we don't just see how close Lucy is to her parents, we also see other characters who cherish and fight for their families and friends.

This is a beautiful book. I am heartened to know that teens who find themselves in crisis, and aren't sure they can believe anymore, will have Lucy's story to take with them through that moment.

The Names They Gave Us
By Emory Lord
Bloomsbury USA Children's May 2017
390 pages
From the library

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review: The Bedlam Stacks

Merrick Tremayne is stuck. After an injury to his leg, he is confined to the crumbling familial estate where he is slowly going crazy of boredom (if his brother doesn't drive him there first). When the India Office asks him to take one last expedition, he knows that it will be a disaster. But his desperation to do something other than sit at home drives him to take the job, even though the men sent before him didn't come back. Merrick sets out into the Amazon to find the quinine that can cure malaria, but the locals or perhaps the local spirits aren't going to allow an easy expedition. Can Merrick trust the people he encounters? Will he make it out of Peru alive?

When I saw that Natasha Pulley had a new book coming out, there was no doubt that I would have to read it. I loved her quirky and charming debut The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and I was excited to see what magical and unexpected things she would do in her newest book.

As it turns out, the two books are somewhat connected. There is a minor inclusion of a character from the first novel, but it mostly feels as if the two books are two sides of one coin. Watchmaker was very centered in the possibilities of machines and gears within the city and Bedlam lives in the realm of forests and seas and ancient magic. But I found myself frustrated because I wanted more and less at the same time. This book can easily be described as sprawling; the author is in no hurry to reveal all of her secrets. It seemed to take forever to get to the heart of the story and when we finally do, it seems like Ms. Pulley left out things that would have made the story and the characters richer.

Although this story didn't work for me completely, I was enchanted by many parts of it and I find Natasha Pulley to be a wildly inventive and unique writer in a sea of similar stories. I will certainly be back for the fascinating stories and characters I can't help but adore.

The Bedlam Stacks
By Natasha Pulley
Bloomsbury USA August 2017
336 pages
Read via Netgalley

Monday, August 14, 2017

It's Monday and I'm back from Disney!

Hello ladies and gentlemen!

I am back from sunny (and humid) Florida, where my husband and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary at Disney World. The kids very happily spent a week with two sets of grandparents, where they ate a lot of junk food, had too much screen time, and took trips to the museum and Chuck E. Cheese. Meanwhile, the husband and I enjoyed all of the rides, complete conversations, and eating an entire meal without taking someone to the bathroom!


The good news about going from Philly to Florida on a train is that you get lots of reading time. Over the past two weeks, I read The Lost Letter by Jillian Cantor, The Lauras by Sara Taylor, Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way by Shauna Niequist, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, The History of Bees by Maja Lunde, My Glory Was I Had Such Friends by Amy Silverstein, and Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.

     The History of Bees      The Lost Letter

What are you reading this week?

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review: The Sworn Virgin

Eleanora is happy with her life. Her adoring father takes her with him on his medical visits and will allow her to travel all the way to Italy to study the art that she loves. But then he is murdered on the street as a victim of an Albanian feud and Eleanora and her stepmother Mirlinda must find a way to survive. In desperation, Mirlinda sells her daughter in marriage to a wealthy and cruel neighbor. Eleanora refuses to be sold off and instead takes the vow of a sworn virgin. This gives her the right to live as a man: to run her family, carry a gun, and be afforded all of the respect of a man. It just might give her the tools she needs to discover who murdered her father and why. But it means she must remain a virgin for the rest of her life, which becomes much more difficult when she saves the life of a handsome stranger.

I chose to read this book because the setting of early 20th century Albania sounded fascinating and I wanted to know more about the idea of essentially declaring yourself a man and receiving all of the benefits of that position. It's clear that Kristopher Dukes has done her research and she takes the reader over mountain passes and treacherous rivers to the towns and villages that Eleanora visits. I would have liked a bit more information about the sworn virgins within the story; Eleanora does meet one other virgin, but she mostly makes a decision based off of things she has heard and makes it up as she goes along.

Eleanora herself is an interesting character. She has been pampered as much as possible in their culture, as her father allows her to do as she wishes and she has no responsibilities and leaves all the housework up to her stepmother. This makes her a rather selfish person. When her father dies, she has very little compassion for her stepmother and still focuses on what she wants above all else. Romance starts to bloom between Eleanora and a man named Cheremi, and she never stops to consider repercussions. In The Sworn Virgin, Kristopher Dukes has given us an interesting character and shown us a world we don't often encounter in historical fiction. I just wish that we had met a woman who could be both brave and kind, headstrong and considerate.

The Sworn Virgin
By Kristopher Dukes
William Morrow August 2017
352 pages
Received from the publisher for TLC Book Tours

Sunday, July 30, 2017

It's Monday. What are you reading this summer?

Hi everyone! How was your week?

It's been happy and busy around here, as my son's preschool reports used to say. We've really been enjoying summer with lots of time outside and a movie night (with ice cream, of course). My son and I even managed to sneak in some time at Barnes and Noble on Sunday afternoon.

This week, I read A Talent for Murder and The Sworn Virgin. Both are historical fiction; one imagines what happened during the week that Agatha Christie went missing and the second tells the story of an Albanian woman who swears to remain chaste in return for being considered a man by her community.

         A Talent for Murder     The Sworn Virgin

In a very unusual move for me, I don't have plans to pick up a book until Wednesday when I shall be whisked away on a train to Disney World. The husband and I are celebrating our ten year wedding anniversary with a trip sans kids, so I am excited to get a lot of reading done! My choices for the trip include The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, The Lauras, Rules of Civility, and Young Jane Young. Any suggestions on which book I should start with?

What are you reading this week?

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Wednesdays with David: Clara Humble and the Not-So-Super Powers

Clara Humble and the Not-So-Super Powers
By Anna Humphrey
Illustrated by Lisa Cinar
OwlKids Books September 2016
224 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Clara Humble and the Not-So-Super Powers

The Story: Clara is your typical fourth-grader, except for the pesky possibility that she might have superpowers. She is determined to use her powers of communicating with her pet chinchilla, spilling her drink, and controlling the minds of her teachers for good. It's clear that the world needs a superhero, especially with her beloved neighbor moving away and a rival school sharing their school building for the term. Clara is ready to save the day and tell readers all about it with her story and sketches.

Mama opines: David doesn't need me to read with him anymore, but I skimmed through the first few chapters of this one. Clara is a lot of fun. She reminds me of an older Junie B. or Ramona with her spunk and wit. Unfortunately we did not get Clara's comics in the egalley version, but I looked at them online and they looked exactly like the art a 10 year old would include.

Thoughts from David: Clara is funny and cool. Her ''super powers'' are kinda weird but usually they make sense somehow. Her powers seem real but they are, well, ''not so super powers." Also she's having a hard time at her school. AND at home. Her BFF neighbor, Momo,  is moving. And at school, her bitterest rivals, R. R Reginald Elementary is moving to their school for the term! Uh-oh!

As always, joke time! Why does Clara always wake up at exactly 8? To catch the villains! They wake up even earlier! Hmm, they must be super-tired! Hahaha!                

Happy reading!             

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Review: Everybody's Son

It was the hottest week anyone could remember in years. Anton's mother locked him in their inner-city apartment while she went to get a quick hit. But she didn't come back. Days later, Anton breaks a window and the police find him bloody, hungry, and overheated. When his mother is finally found, she is sent to prison and her son becomes a part of the foster care system. Anton's foster parents are David and Delores Coleman. They carry the tremendous loss of their own son and hope that Anton can bring some joy to their home again. With time, the Colemans come to love Anton and he cares very much for his foster parents, even as he asks about being reunited with his mother. David's love will drive him to use his power and influence as a judge to make a terrible decision that will have repercussions for everyone in his family.

Thrity Umrigar is not an author who shies away from tough questions. In Everybody's Son, she looks at the immoral decisions that people will make for the people they love. Anton is a boy who goes through difficult circumstances, but he is also a boy who is deeply loved by his mother and by his foster parents. It would be easy for the author to portray the drug-addicted mother as the villain and the kind Colemans as the heroes. It would also be easy to rail against the rich white people who took a black child away from the mother who was doing the best she could. But Thrity Umrigar does neither of these things. Instead, she has created a nuanced story in which characters do bad things for good reasons and good things for the wrong reasons.

The ending of this book was wrapped up a little neatly for me and I wished that we hadn't jumped from a lot of action to a lot of self-reflection in the final hundred pages. But Thrity Umrigar is a careful and compelling writer and this book will give you a lot to think about when it comes to power, privilege, and the bond of family.

Everybody's Son
By Thrity Umrigar
Harper June 2017
352 pages
From the library

Monday, July 24, 2017

It's Monday and we signed up for Pre-K!

Hi again! How is everyone doing?

This week was a busy one and we wrapped it up with an open house at BG's preschool on Saturday. The school organized a painting activity and a picnic lunch. Our little independent lady decided to ignore the lovely teacher showing them all how to paint a sailboat and did her own thing instead. Now we just have to convince her that her canvas cannot accompany her everywhere she goes. BG is signed up for Pre-K in September, so expect to see lots of pictures of her and possible renditions of "Sunrise, Sunset" right after Labor Day.

This week, I read The Woman Next Door and Word by Word. The first was a novel about two curmudgeonly old ladies who might have more in common than they think. The second was an absolutely delightful peek into working at a dictionary and a general celebration of how cool and bizarre the English language can be. I also fit in the graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time. I've been meaning to read it for a while and seeing the movie trailer finally gave me the push to get it from my library.

         Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries    A Talent for Murder

Next up for me is A Talent for Murder, which imagines what happened when Agatha Christie disappeared for an entire week.

What are you reading?

                                         

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mini-reviews: The Home That Was Our Country and Daring to Drive

Alia Malek journeyed back to Damascus to claim the home that her grandmother lived in and loved. She returned as a woman who had lived in America, but also had a long history to trace in Syria. In The Home That Was Our Country, she delves into the history of her family while reporting the atmosphere in her homeland from Arab Spring in 2011 until she left two years later.

I was really interested in learning about recent and long-term Syrian history from someone who lived there. Unfortunately, I had a hard time with this story. Malek has clearly done her research and dives deeply into both her family's history and the history of the country that she loves so dearly. She writes deftly about the families who lived in her family's neighborhood as well as the necessity of changing what you can say, depending on the people you are talking to. But the writing was a bit dry and I sometimes had to force myself to pick it up and continue reading. The Home That Was Our Country might be a good pick for you, though, if you want an in-depth history of Syria told through the story of one family.

The Home That Was Our Country
A Memoir of Syria
By Alia Malek
Nation Books February 2017
304 pages
Read via Netgalley


Manal al-Sharif was a woman living in Saudi Arabia, but she defied expectation in many ways. She graduated with a degree in computer science and used that degree in her job, which allowed her to help her parents financially and also to care for her son. But a single mother living alone within a company compound inevitably runs into some problems, which were compacted by Saudi Arabia's rule that women were not allowed to drive. Manal never set out to defy the government or religious officials; in fact, she was a devout and severe religious adherent as as teen. But she decided she had to take a stand and became the face of the movement calling for women to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Manal al-Sharif may work with computers, but her writing is strong and compelling. Her voice is the thing that pulls you right into her story as the police bang on her door in the early morning hours and the thing that makes you continue to read. For someone who lives in the US, it was sobering to realize just how much a driving ban would limit and, in many instances, endanger women. I only wish that there was a bit of a broader lens at certain moments: I wanted to know about the other people involved and find out where Manal sees the movement going, since women still don't have the right to drive in Saudi Arabia.

Daring to Drive
A Saudi Woman's Awakening
By Manal al-Sharif
Simon and Schuster June 2017
304 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

Lydia Smith loves working at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. She can talk books all day and spend time with the BookFrogs, a group of misfits who wander the aisles and find a sort of home there. But one night, she makes the terrible discovery that Joey has committed suicide in the bookstore. Lydia learns that he left her everything he owned, including a puzzle hidden inside his books. The messages he left encourage her to revisit the darkest moments of her childhood that she has spent a lifetime trying to forget. Did Joey know who was behind the crime that terrorized a community and destroyed Lydia's family?

Readers love books that are about bookstores and fellow readers. But this is not your grandma's cozy mystery about a bookseller who solves crimes in a small town when she's not knitting sweaters for her cat. Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is dark and a bit creepy and delves deeply into the consequences of suppressing the difficult things in our lives. It's also about the relationships we have and the ones we choose, and about knowing when to leave and when to give people another chance. It's about loneliness and finding the people who will accept you, even with all the scars of your past.

This book is one that seems to play before your eyes as you read. It's easy to picture Lydia shelving books at Bright Ideas Bookstore or spending an afternoon long ago with her childhood friends in the local donut shop. This is also a really well-written mystery. We know early on that the central question is about the crime committed in Lydia's childhood. But Matthew Sullivan has added so many layers that it's impossible to tell who might be responsible or why. As the reader, you are working just like Lydia is to uncover another clue about Joey or remember one pivotal moment from her past. Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is a great choice for book lovers who like their mysteries dark and twisty.


Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore
By Matthew J. Sullivan
Scribner June 2017
336 pages
Read via Netgalley

Monday, July 17, 2017

It's Monday and I need to get working!

Hi bookish people! How are you doing?

I had a good week of actually getting things posted here on the blog, but I feel like I'm still terribly behind on all of my life things after my trip to Portland. The house needs some serious TLC, I have a lot of work to catch up on, and there are these two kids who seem to like hanging out with me during the summer. So I'm chipping away a little at a time and of course remembering to take some time to read too.

This week, I read The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord. I was having one of those days where I couldn't focus on anything, so I curled up with a giant cup of coffee and cried my way through the last 100 pages. I also read The Women in the Castle, which made this historical fiction reader very happy.

          The Names They Gave Us    The Woman Next Door

Now I'm continuing my phase of books with woman or women right in the title and reading The Woman Next Door. It's out in the US, but I actually picked up my copy in a Scottish bookstore when I went to visit my sister a few months ago.


What are you reading this week?

P.S. If you looking for a new book to read, I'm giving away a copy of News of the World

Friday, July 14, 2017

Getting into an Audiobook

For many of my reading years, I avoided audiobooks. What would I do when I hadn't listened for a day or two and forgot what had happened? How could I flip back through the pages to check on a specific fact? Plus, you never know exactly what will happen next and I have two young children who don't need to hear an unexpected steamy scene or four-letter word.


But this past year, I've started incorporating them into my reading. I especially love them on long trips or when I'm cleaning up the kitchen after putting the kids to bed. I've had the pleasure this year of listening to Cinnamon and Gunpowder, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, The Signature of All Things, Shadowshaper, and The Book of Unknown Americans. I confess to picking several of the books because they were immediately available from my library or because I adore the narrator (Lin-Manuel Miranda or Anika Noni Rose, anyone?).

                     Cinnamon and Gunpowder      The Book of Unknown Americans

With almost every audiobook, I find myself having an adjustment period. It takes longer for me to hit my groove than it does when I read a paper book. When reading a paper book, I can tell within a few chapters if this book will work for me. With an audiobook, I've had several times where I almost set it aside and then found myself happy I stuck with it. But once I hit that point, I am sneaking in a chapter or two any time I find a few quiet moments. 

Is this true for you too? Does it take you a longer time to really get invested in an audiobook?

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Review: News of the World (plus a giveaway!)

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels through Texas, reading the news to crowds of people who long to know what is happening outside of their small towns. He finds purpose in this job, especially since his wife has died and his children live far away. When he is asked to transport a young girl to her relatives, he is unsure what to do. Johanna was captured by a Kiowa tribe after they killed her parents and she has lived with them for four years. The US Army rescued the girl, but they need someone else to make sure she arrives safely to an aunt and uncle she does not remember. Captain Kidd and Johanna set off on a 400 mile journey, where they will encounter friends and enemies and forge an unexpected bond.

So I think I read a Western and I really enjoyed it. News of the World has the requisite journeys over dangerous territory, tense shoot-outs, and encounters with hostile local tribes. But this story isn't really about who is the best shot; it's truly about the unexpected relationship between Captain Kidd and Johanna. He's an old man who has already raised a family and lived through the horrors of the Civil War. She's a child who has forgotten English, won't wear shoes, and certainly doesn't like or trust this strange man in a wagon.

But Kidd is one of those wonderful characters who is determined to do the right thing, even when it's difficult. He is also a man who believes in the importance of story and the written word. He shares the news with people to make a living but, more than that, he tells stories because he knows that they can take you out of your circumstances and show just how big and wonderful the world can be.

Paulette Jiles does an excellent job of bringing the South after the Civil War to life and showing the reader how complicated life could be. But she does this alongside beautiful descriptions and characters that grow on you with each page. This is one of those rare and wonderful books where you wish that the author had written several more to tell you the entire backstory of the characters and to give you entire novels centered on minor characters.

News of the World
By Paulette Jiles
William Morrow Paperbacks June 2017
240 pages
Received for review from the publisher and TLC Book Tours


I happen to have an extra copy of News of the World to send to your bookshelf. If you would like to win this book, leave a comment telling me the best Western or historical fiction novel you've read lately. I will pick a winner in one week.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: The Almost Sisters

Graphic novelist Leia Birch Briggs seems to be running from problem to problem. She is at her stepsister's side when Rachel's marriage is falling apart. Before they can solve that, she is off to Alabama with her teenage niece in tow to find out what is happening with her beloved grandma Birchie. When she discovers that her grandma has been sick for a long time and Birchie's best friend Wattie has been helping her keep the secret, she is furious. But Leia is also willing to stick around and figure out a solution. After all, she has a problem of her own that is only going to grow: Leia is pregnant, but the only thing she remembers is that the father was dressed up as Batman at the comic convention.

I had read one other Joshilyn Jackson book before this one, which frustrated me for plot reasons. I'm so glad I gave her another try because I found this book to be the perfect combination of compelling plot, engaging characters, and a wonderful Southern family story.

There's a balance between a light beach read and a story that tackles real issues. It's tough to achieve and books usually fall in one camp or the other. The Almost Sisters is the rare one that can do both. The pages fly by, but the story is dealing with big issues like racism, abuse, and the ways we care for our families.

The story is great, but it's really the flawed, endearing characters that make this book so enjoyable. Leia is a delightful protagonist to follow. She definitely doesn't have her life together, but she is doing the best she can and she will fight unceasingly for the people she loves. The relationships in this story were so strong and realistic. Leia and Rachel are stepsisters, but they are a huge part of each other's lives and I really enjoyed the way Leia understood Rachel and worked to come to terms with her choices. Birchie and Wattie have been friends for a lifetime and would be happy to live together and preside over their Southern town for the rest of their days.

I loved spending time in Birchville, Alabama with each one of the carefully crafted characters. If Ms. Jackson would like to write a sequel, I would be there in a second. If not, I will be happily enjoying whatever stories she chooses to write.

The Almost Sisters
By Joshilyn Jackson
William Morrow July 2017
352 pages
Book provided by Harper Collins for the She Reads Book Club

Sunday, July 9, 2017

It's Monday and I'm back!

Well, I didn't mean for that to happen. I seem to be doing a good job lately of going radio silent for entire weeks. On the last Wednesday in June, I left for Portland for a work conference, a visit with my cousins, and a few days with my best friend. I originally had intentions to write blog posts before I left. That didn't happen. Then I was sure that I would have plenty of downtime to write during my trip. That didn't happen either.

So the trip was good. I'm back home now and ready to catch up on those reviews (as well as the million other things that pile up when you go away!).

Since I last checked in, I read News of the World on the plane. I read Daring to Drive on and off during my days on the West Coast and then managed to squeeze in The Jane Austen Project on my way home. Since adjusting back to East Coast time, I've been enjoying my last foray into Gilead with Marilynne Robinson's Lila

 

What have you been up to? What are you reading this week?


Friday, July 7, 2017

Mini-reviews: The Stars Are Fire and Ramona Blue

Grace Holland is living a normal, if unexciting, life with her husband Gene and two small children. When the coast of Maine catches fire after months of drought, she must find away to save herself, her kids, and her unborn baby. Grace and her best friend Rosie escape the flames at the ocean's edge, where they dig themselves into the sand and hope that the water will save them. In the morning, their lives have changed forever: their homes and town are destroyed and they don't know the fates of their husbands. The Stars Are Fire follows Grace during and after that terrifying night, as she finds out what her life holds after the flames have been doused.

This is my second Anita Shreve book and I find myself really impressed with her ability to create a mood. From the opening pages, it is apparent that things are not right with Grace's town or with her marriage. You know what is going to happen, but Grace does not. Shreve expertly builds the tension until the night of the fire. Just when you (and Grace) become comfortable with her new life, something surprising happens with the potential to destroy everything Grace has worked so hard to build. I certainly understand why so many readers get excited when a new Anita Shreve book comes out and I am happy to have a backlist to enjoy.

The Stars Are Fire
By Anita Shreve
Knopf Publishing Group April 2017
241 pages
From the library


Ramona had a wonderful summer with a girl who was visiting her Mississippi town. But fall begins and things are about to get difficult: her dad is barely making ends meet, Ramona is juggling several jobs, her sister Hattie is pregnant, and Ramona's best friend Freddie just came back to town. Ramona and Freddie quickly fall into a rhythm, as if the two friends had never been separated. They start spending all their free time together, even swimming at the local pool together in the mornings. But Ramona is confused by their growing affection: does she date girls or boys now?

Ramona Blue is an excellent follow-up to the unforgettable Dumplin'. Julie Murphy has written another heroine that you can't help but adore. This story gently, but firmly, points out and challenges privilege and assumptions about race, gender, class, and orientation, all without veering into treatise territory. While I don't think everyone has a year that changes everything, some of us do. This is that year for Ramona and it is a joy to follow her as she discovers what is important to her, who she loves, and what she is willing to fight for. I always finish a Julie Murphy book feeling like I experienced everything myself alongside fascinating and lovable people, which is a pretty wonderful way to remember a story.

Ramona Blue
By Julie Murphy
Balzer and Bray May 2017
432 pages
From the library

Monday, June 26, 2017

It's Monday and summer is here!

Hello gals and guys! Tuesday was my son's last day of school, so we've been taking the rest of this week easy. I was prepared for everyone to sleep in on Saturday morning until we got an early morning tornado warning. There is nothing like starting your morning at 6:30 a.m. scrunched up with your kids between a wall and a stairwell.

This week, I read The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson, The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve, Everybody's Son by Thrity Umrigar, and Fit to Burst by Rachel Jankovic. I had one of those weeks where I just wanted to read, so I did! I may regret that now that I need to catch up on everything else...

Apparently, I only read red books now...
I'm not reading anything this second since I'm trying to get ready for a work trip on Wednesday. Once I'm on the plane though, I will have plenty to choose from. I'm packing The Jane Austen Project, News of the World, Daring To Drive, and The Women in the Castle. Any suggestions for which book I should start with?

 

What are you reading this week?

Friday, June 23, 2017

Review: Assimilate or Go Home

D.L. Mayfield was 19 years old and she was going to be a missionary. But she quickly discovered that she wasn't very good at languages or asking random strangers what kind of God they believed in. None of the things she learned seemed like it would work with or help the people she encountered. Instead, she took a different tact: she started volunteering with the refugees who were flooding into her community. Eventually, she moved her small family into one of the low-income apartment buildings full of refugee families. And then she got to know them and let them know her. She stuck around long enough to be uncomfortable and offended and have her mind and her heart changed about just what it means to live as a person of faith and love your neighbor as yourself.

This slim book is set up to imitate the cycle that refugees experience when they finally arrive in a new place: anticipation, reality, depression, and acceptance. Mayfield candidly lays bare all of the mistakes she made, big and small. I appreciated that she wasn't cruel to herself in retrospect; rather, she admitted that she had grown and learned a great deal over the years.

There is a growing movement among Christianity that points out the inherent flaws in the concept of "short-term mission." This is the idea that you travel to a foreign country or the inner city for a week or two, do a program with the local children, build a house, and then go home feeling like you have made a difference. But Mayfield points out that this concept is damaging to both the people going and the people who are seen again and again as a problem to be solved with a skit and a free t-shirt. There is a difference between giving up a weekend and becoming truly invested in people.

She writes that "the problems seem to get more overwhelming, the longer you stay. The easy paint jobs got taken, the kids already ate your snacks and heard the stories you had prepared for them, your friend never followed up on the job interview you arranged for him...If you stay long enough you will learn just enough about the brokenness of the world that you will feel completely powerless, mired in your own brokenness and doubting God more often than you care to admit. It is easier to leave right after the prayers are prayed, right after somebody meets Jesus, while the tears are still fresh and the hope is solid enough to cut with a knife...And then we forget. We always forget--that comforting, calming, after-effect of our world."

Assimilate or Go Home is one of those books that takes up permanent residence in your mind, so you can think about it months after you are done with it. I can't decide if I want to start loaning it out immediately to every person I know or keep it close by, so I can re-read it again and again. D.L. Mayfield certainly doesn't claim to have all the answers, but she has some ideas about what God might really be calling us to do. Perhaps you are being called to the ministry of baking cakes for people who are moving away, or sitting in silence with someone whose heart is broken, or allowing yourself to be vulnerable and helped by others, or just seeing that great injustice and the love of Christ somehow both live in this beautiful, broken world.


Assimilate or Go Home:
Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith
By D.L. Mayfield
HarperOne August 2016
224 pages
From my shelves

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Phryne Fisher On the Page and On the Screen

A few months ago, I was perusing my Netflix queue and happened to find a show called Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. It looked fun, so I decided to give it a try. It became my favorite show to watch after the kids went to bed or when I tried to write a blog post during naptime.

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Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries follows Phryne Fisher, who has come into a fortune later in life. She lives in Australia in the 1920s. Phryne is fabulous and she knows it. She ignores social convention by flaunting her lovers and even enjoying (!) her trysts. She drives her own car and is known to carry a gun (just in case). Our dear protagonist is hungry for knowledge and never content to leave a question unanswered. When local detective Jack Robinson finds her poking around his crime scene, he is initially irritated but soon discovers that Phryne is both charming and very good at solving mysteries. The two end up working together and the tension between the uninhibited Phryne and the very proper Jack is delightful.

There is also a fantastic roster of supporting characters including Phryne's butler (aptly named Mr. Butler); her ladies' maid/assistant Dot; Hugh, who works with Jack at the police station; and Burt and Cec, who help Phryne gather information. In the television show, these characters get enough screen time that you are almost in love with them as you are with Phryne herself.

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After I finished watching the show, I stumbled upon the book series and decided to see what was source material and what was unique to the television show. The books were published before the television show was created, but they were recently re-released with tie-in covers. I read Raisins and Almonds and Murder in the Dark, which are #9 and #16 in the series.

I remember watching Raisins and Almonds on tv. Phryne is pulled into the dark corners of Jewish politics after a man is murdered in a bookstore and the owner is wrongly arrested. I don't remember watching Murder in the Dark, but it's certainly possible that the story was changed significantly or I've just forgotten one episode! In that story, Phryne is invited to a huge party at an estate. The host is threatened and people start to go missing.

 

Both books gave me a good sense of Phryne herself, but I missed spending time with the secondary characters. They were almost entirely absent in one book and appeared periodically in the other. It also seemed to me that being forced to condense a story to just one episode made it tighter, as opposed to a sprawling 250 pages where you can devote pages to Phryne thinking or spend a page describing the lunch they are eating.

I will always be a big Phryne Fisher fan in whatever format I can find her. For someone new to the fabulous Phryne, the show or the books are a wonderful place to start. But I have to confess I think I will find myself re-watching the television show more often than I will be picking up another book.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

It's Monday in a very noisy house!

Hello friends! I'm writing this on Sunday evening, where I have managed to find a tiny pocket of peace and quiet. Maybe I'm just at peak introvert lately, but I feel like my beloved children have reached new and deafening levels of noise. Summer break should be great?

This week, I read and adored Marilynne Robinson's Home. I read Gilead a while ago and I am very much looking forward to reading Lila, the third book with those characters. I also read Ramona Blue, which is the newest book from Julie Murphy (of Dumplin' fame).

 

Next up for me is The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson.


What are you reading this week?

Friday, June 16, 2017

Sisters Saving Sisters

I have three younger sisters. We had our ups and downs as kids but as adults, I am happy to report that we are good friends. Sisterhood is a unique and powerful bond, whether you have sisters by blood or friends who become your family. Some of my favorite books have stories where ladies fight for their sisters or friends.


I finally grabbed Uprooted from my library after reading many rave reviews. Agnieszka lives in a small village with her family. Every ten years, a powerful wizard comes and takes one girl to live with him and Agnieszka knows it will be her best friend Kasia. Instead, he picks Agnieszka and takes her away to live in his secluded tower. It would have been easy for the story to be divided into her early life in the village and her time with the wizard, but the bond between the two friends is an important part of the story throughout. Agnieszka and Kasia are willing to face impossible odds to save their friend and come back to help each other again and again. The two are different in personality, but both of them are brave and committed to the people they love.

 

Last year I read A Thousand Nights, a retelling of the story by the very talented E.K. Johnston. Our unnamed protagonist is taken by the king to be the newest in the string of wives he marries and then murders. She manages to stay alive by telling the king stories of her childhood and family, but her sisters assumes that she is dead. Grieving and enraged, she prays that her sister will be made into a smallgod. Her dedication to her sister does indeed give power to the queen, who is very much alive and will soon need every bit of strength and power she can use.


I really enjoyed these books, particularly their portrayals of the power and importance of bonds between women. So today I want all of your recommendations. What are other books where women risk everything for their sisters?